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Top ten upgrades for new construction?

Heather N
February 24, 2014
We are in the process of planning our new home. We will be going with a builder who will give us an allowance for our finishings and such and after that everything is an upgrade. So, can you advise (in order of priority) which upgrades are the best value and/or most important? I don't have the allowances yet but I know it includes granite countertops (and I would love quartz). I also want the taller cabinets in the kitchen (8 foot ceiling). Of course I want as much hardwood as we can afford (what is the best value - engineered or real). I want a lot of windows for natural light and to enjoy our new view. Oh! And a floor to ceiling brick/rock fireplace (we live in AK). Then on lighting is it less expensive to go with pot lights or not? So, you see, I could go on but clearly I am going to have to prioritize and choose. Thanks for your help!

Comments (18)

  • qam999
    1. Efficient lighting such as LEDs (these days can provide 100% of your home lighting)
    2. Engineered stone ("quartz") counters in kitchen and bath
    3. Double glazed windows
    4. Engineered hardwood floor
  • Heather N
    What is the purpose of double glazed windows? Thank you for your feedback! I was hoping to get a few replies.
  • Cindy Quinton
    I doubt any reputable builder is going to put in single paned windows; double panes are significantly more energy efficient. Add things that will save you money over the long haul or that would cost much more to add later. Be sure and add little things that won't cost that much now, like extra outlets, extra cable wiring, extra outdoor outlets, extra outdoor water spigots, radiant heat in the floors (especially tiled bathrooms), additional insulation, upgraded shingles, skylights....anything that is a minor cost now, but tons of money later. Add the most efficient HVAC you can. Buy the very best custom cabinets with the best slides and hinges that you can get, even if it means laminate countertops. If you want an island (especially on a slab floor), consider going ahead and having the plumbing and electrical roughed in. And get that fireplace now even though it will add a measurable cost; it will be over the top expensive later. Also, if a half bath can be worked in now, consider it. Have fun!
  • mfwolfe
    Cindy, I saw this dilemma earlier today and tried to frame a reply, but could not get it to come out right. You said exactly what I wanted to say.
  • bluenan
    Cindy has great suggestions. In Arkansas you will probably have a basement, in which case get rough-in plumbing so you can finish it at a later date. I'm a bit surprised at 8' ceilings, if there is any way you can afford 9" ceilings it will pay off multi-fold. I agree wholeheartedly about putting your money into systems and fundamentals. Things like granite counters and moulding can be added later.
  • Heather N
    Thank you so much. I meant to say 9 foot ceilings and I live in Alaska. This is really good advice and I see that I need to think long term and invest in the items that are more expensive to change later. I sure hope I don't have to go with laminate counters (big sad face) but I will if I need to.
  • Cindy Quinton
    Be sure and investigate if your state or utilities companies gives any kind of rebate for things like higher efficiency HVAC, appliances, solar power, etc. I have heard of people spending more on those things, getting the rebate, then adding features like granite countertops with the funds.
  • bluenan
    Whoops, Ak=Alaska, AR=Arkansas, that's what I get for Houzzing after my bedtime. Glad you are getting 9' ceilings, good luck!
  • mfwolfe
  • smileyface2013
    I agree with Cindy, to forgo the counters if needed, as they can easily be upgraded later on, as opposed to the other things that are cheaper to install from the beginning.

    I agree with your other choices you've listed. Cabinets to the ceiling, hardwood floors in main living areas, halls and steps, and for Alaska, I would suggest carpet in the bedrooms for warmth. If you like recessed lights, go for it, as nice light fixtures are not cheap.

    I wish I had a laundry room/mudroom combo. Not easy to install after the fact. I will be looking for that in my next house, lol.
  • PRO
    Hal Braswell Consulting
    My top priority would be to specify 2 x 6 studs instead of 2 x 4 studs, especially for exterior and other loadbearing walls, but I would also keep them 16" on center. This makes the wall cavity deeper to house more and better insulation. The initial cost will be greater but you will recoup in utility bills.

    Second, the added strength will better cope with snow on the roof.

    In general spend money on enduring quality and things that will be hard to change later. Do not skimp on cabinets, door hinges or drawer glides. A Formica countertop can be upgraded later if needed.
  • PRO
    Diane Kremer, ASID CID
    In some states, there are code requirements for the type of lighting, windows (double best vs single), framing, etc. Make your list and talk with the architect and builder at the same time. Ask about costs vs features. Be realistic as to your budget. That is your investment in your home which will be spread over many years. For example, a $3,000 counter now would save the cost of quartz which might be an additional $2,000. But if you plan on replacing the counter in less than 5 years, it will still cost $5,000 or more because prices go up not down. So you have wasted $3,000 not saved $2,000 in the long run for only 5 years. Will you get your original investment out of that $3,000?
  • PRO
    ProSource Memphis
    Put your money into "invisible" things that add to the home's efficiency and comfort. A better rated furnace. Higher R value insulation. A higher quality ERV to ensure that your home has enough fresh air exchanges. In a cold climate like AK, staggered 2x4 construction walls are more efficient than 2x6 construction as it provides a better thermal break. Look into siting the home to take advantage of solar gain during the winter if possible.

    For the home itself, look into designing it with universal design in mind. Wider hallways that can be walker or chair friendly. At least one accessible full bathroom on the main living level. Doors with levers instead of knobs. Cabinets with pulls instead of knobs. Little things can make a big difference here!

    That type of stuff isn't exciting. But, it's what keeps your cost of living in the home low, and it makes living in that home more comfortable for years down the road.
  • Heather N
    The advice to spend on good quality cabinets....if I go all out on the quality what is the most timeless style so that I won't have to replace them in a remodel in 15 years?
  • leofio87
    A little late response, but expanding on what Cindy said, you must put the priority/money into the "bones" of the house, things that are very expensive to replace later, and things that will survive any interior renovations you may perform. As an extreme renovation case, say you completely gut the interior of the house 15 years from now, what will remain untouched? These items are where you want to put your money, and they include:

    1) High performance exterior doors and windows. (In Alaska, Andersen 400s minimum, Marvin preferred, for example)
    2) Upgrade the builder's R-value insulation
    3) Strong durable siding such as fiber cement
    4) Roof with a long manufacturer warranty
    5) Personally I prefer plywood over OSB sheathing and subfloor
    6) Engineered floor joists that won't deform over time
    7) Solid surface flooring where you want it (tile/hardwood) as this impacts doorways, floor elevations, etc throughout the floorplan
    8) HVAC upgrades including radiant floor heating, high performance furnace, etc
    9) Recessed lighting where you want it since this may impact joist spacing. Otherwise for instance later you may decide you want a recessed light centered over the sink, only to find out a joist is in the way.
    10) Check the plans to ensure that all switches/outlets are where you want them
    11) Solid core interior doors
    12) If you want that fireplace, add it in now, but perhaps save the stone feature wall for later

    Cabinets, countertops, cabinet hardware, interior door hardware, paint, plumbing fixtures, lighting fixtures, molding, rugs, and kitchen appliances are all examples of things you can go cheaper today if you have to knowing you can replace them later on relatively easily without affecting the bones of the house.
  • wyobunney
    Hal Braswell at least 2x6 for sure. 24" centers if no special structural engineering requirements. Increased spacing allows more insulation, while also reducing cost with fewer studs, which in turn reduces heat loss through the stud's thermal bridging.
  • sunnydrew
    As noted above, you will find the windows to be double paned for better efficiency. What is preferred is that they are double hung, not single hung. It is more expensive, but it allows you flip down both the upper and lower windows to clean them from inside your house in a matter of minutes. Just don't skimp on your windows. And be sure they are installed correctly so they open easily. You should be able to test them before all the trim is put on. I learned that mine had too much insulation added around them which made some tighter than others to open.
  • wyobunney
    sunnydrew double hung are less energy efficient. Marvin Windows, for example, offers casement windows that one can rotate from within the home for cleaning. Many other examples exists as well.

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